TRAVERSE CITY — It's only a decade old, but the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference has a venerable distinction.
The annual gathering of "biological pioneers" in Traverse City is the country's oldest satellite site for the national Bioneers conference, held in California.
The local event will celebrate 10 years when it kicks off Friday.
"It seems like every year it just kind of grows, develops and deepens," said Sally Van Vleck. She and her husband, Bob Russell, are codirectors of the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center, which organizes the event with the local nonprofit group SEEDS and Northwestern Michigan College. "I think it says we have a really deep and growing community that is interested in this kind of stuff."
Van Vleck and Russell were there at the beginning. They attended the national Bioneers conference in 2001 and wanted to bring the program back to northern Michigan. Traverse City became one of the first satellite sites, offering localized topics and speakers while broadcasting events from the national event.
Van Vleck said about 100 people turned out that first year. In 2010, she estimated around 900 people attended the conference at some point.
"It's all solution-oriented. It's not about doom and gloom, it's not about going down the tubes, it's about how can we make this work better. What are the solutions?" Van Vleck said.
This year's conference will focus on "reclaiming the commons," the idea that some resources must be protected and managed for the public good.
The conference begins with keynote speaker Jay Walljasper, an expert on the topic. He is editor-at-large of the website "On the Commons," a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and the author of "All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons."
Greg Reisig, chairman of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, will be there. He said it's important for the Great Lakes to be declared a commons, and off-limits to privatization.
"All connecting waters and wetlands should be declared a commons," said Reisig. "We know that the threats are growing to the Great Lakes."
Reisig said efforts to divert water from the lakes and their tributaries have a devastating effect on the watershed.
"There's this constant threat, that the water doesn't belong to people," he said.
But the commons are not limited to natural resources. Public commons can include media and communications, and Saturday's keynote speaker, Laurie Cirivello, will discuss the importance of community-based media.
"In any community-based commons effort to influence, whether it's environmental preservation or food systems, communications are the key to being effective," said Cirivello, executive director of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. "Traditionally that's how movements have interfaced with media, but that's all changed."
The Grand Rapids Community Media Center encourages citizen journalism by providing tools and technology to the community. Cirivello also publishes The Rapidian, a news website in Grand Rapids that's by, about and for local residents.
"Commercial media has, at some level, the purpose of attracting eyeballs to get ads; it's a revenue model," Cirivello said. "What we try to do in the media commons environment is to take those lessons and ... apply them to something not profit-based, something geared to the community good above all things."
It's that wide array of topics, from water preservation to media technology, that Van Vleck said makes the Bioneers conference special.
"It's like a getting a graduate degree in one weekend," she said. "Even though I'm one of (the) organizers, I sit down in the auditorium and I listen all three days. I don't think I've missed a speaker. This is my continuing education."